Imaging Pay Dirt


There is more to cultivating grapevines than meets the eye. Each year winemakers and grape-growers struggle to grow the perfect grapes they need to produce high-quality wines. And at least one scientist has found his niche in the dirt in which the grapevines grow.

Soil is teeming with beneficial bacteria and minerals. At the same time, numerous pests and diseases lurk beneath the surface and can attack at any moment. Powdery mildew, bunch rot, and tiny nematodes all thrive on succulent grapevines and their roots. For years, though, grape growers didn't pay much attention to the soil and its inhabitants. It took a backseat to climate, even at the University of California (UC), Davis, in the mid-1980s, says Paul Skinner, president and founder of Terra Spase, a leading vineyard technology company located in the Napa Valley of California.

"Now, people wouldn't really plant a vineyard without thinking of the soil," he says. Skinner should know: His company has revolutionized the way winemakers and grape growers think about what is going on, both at the soil surface and underneath the ground.

Terra Spase (short for "spatial services") was the first company to bring high-level technology to the grape-growing industry. Like many great ideas, it started small, with equipment stowed in the back of Skinner's pickup truck and door-to-door sales pitches.

Skinner's interest in agriculture began long before he came to the Napa Valley. After he graduated from the University of Wisconsin in the mid-1970s with a degree in water resources, he joined the Peace Corps and worked with rural agriculturalists in Nicaragua. Helping farmers produce higher yields of corn and beans in such an impoverished environment gave him a new perspective on agriculture.

Skinner came back to the Midwest to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, moving back to Wisconsin to monitor acid rain and map soil conditions in a forest close to the Canadian border. All of this practical work stirred the academic in him, and he joined a master's degree program in agronomy at Colorado State University. Skinner later went on to earn a doctorate in soil science from UC Davis.

It was while working as a postdoctoral fellow at UC Davis's prestigious school of viticulture and enology that Skinner decided to start a consulting business in the Napa Valley. "By virtue of the fact that it was a field where very few people were consulting ... I had a niche," he says.

At the same time that he was starting his fledgling business, many vineyards were just beginning to combat a troublesome microscopic root louse called phylloxera. The tiny bug was plaguing vineyards by destroying rootstocks just below the surface of the soil. Skinner worked with grape-growers and helped them plant phylloxera-resistant rootstocks. The new lines turned out to be more sensitive to soil conditions, however, so Skinner assisted growers with integrating the new varieties into the vineyards. As yields and quality began to increase, so did Skinner's business. "I was very fortunate," he remembers. "My name got circulated over a 4 or 5 year period, and I went from actively seeking to getting more unsolicited calls."

Now more than 15 years later, Skinner and his company have combined highly sophisticated, geographic information systems and global positioning systems with age-old grape-growing traditions. In 1997, Terra Spase collaborated with NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, and the Robert Mondavi Winery to bring space-age remote-sensing technology to the Napa Valley. The project was called Canopy Remote-Sensing for Uniformly Segmented Harvest, or CRUSH, and the goal was to produce image-based data and information for vineyards in an easy-to-understand format. Using these new color-coded maps, grape-growers could improve the uniformity of their crops by predicting where grapevines would flourish. CRUSH provided a key ingredient for winemakers trying to match grape variety with soil type. Skinner's unique understanding of natural resources and his penchant for technology were assets to the project. Ultimately, he created imagery maps for more than 25 vineyards. Now Skinner produces image-based maps for vineyards across the Napa and Sonoma valleys. "Cutting edge is what we are known for," he says.

Terra Spase is a small company, with three employees and the occasional seasonal worker during the harvest season or the summer months. Skinner prefers that people who apply for a job have a working knowledge of soil science. They don't have to have a Ph.D. like he does, though, just a love for the outdoors and no qualms about getting a little dirty in the field.

Skinner appreciates what his scientific background has brought him, but he also recognizes the equal importance of practical experience. "My career has been a winding path through different areas of the country and fields of natural science, but it's provided me with the background to approach these problems in the grape industry with this new perspective," he says.

These days even with all of his other projects, he is thinking about making his own wine. Indeed, he and his wife have just purchased their own vineyard. "It's 2 acres with 30-year Zinfandel vines on it, so I've now crossed over from scientist to winemaker," he says with a laugh.

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